Jun 14, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

We are all one

P M Laksono

Southeast Maluku has been neglected not only in the story of the fighting throughout Maluku from early 1999, but also in that of its end. The district capital Tual is located in the Kei Islands, just 800 km to the north of Darwin in Australia. Indonesian newspapers reported hardly any details about the outbreak of fighting on 31 March 1999, except to suggest that hundreds died and tens of thousands became refugees. Almost nothing has been written about why the fighting stopped and what brought the community together again.

Like chocolate melting from the edges in, so the Indonesian state in Maluku experienced structural melt-down after Suharto resigned in 1998. Its ability to bind groups together vanished. The dominance of Golkar, of money, of the values of developmentalism, and of the military, which had held Indonesia together, evaporated and left people disoriented. They lost their trust in the system. When religious fighting broke out in Ambon in January 1999, it created enormous confusion in Southeast Maluku. People lost their grip on reality and a kind of anarchy broke out.

Why should the state be so important in a remote place like Tual? We have to understand that the classic liberal concept of the state - one that doesn't interfere in the market or in people's lives except to provide security and perhaps welfare - has never applied in Maluku. There has never been a free, independent economy. Instead, there is close collaboration between the state, capital, and the values of modernisation and development. Everything has been a monopoly of the state - from rice to petrol.

Southeast Maluku is actually not a remote area. In the early 1960s, the district head (bupati) was a big man. He had to be inventive to fulfil the area's budgetary needs. But by the mid-1980s, with the New Order at its height, all the money came from Jakarta, without any effort at all on the part of the district head. The district had gone from self-sufficiency to an extreme degree of dependency. Human development had actually regressed - the opposite of what the development program intended.

Instead of eating food made from the local sago and poisonous cassava, the civil servants in town now ate rice and instant noodles - all imported by the state and by big capital. Civil servants are the backbone of urban society. By the end of the 1980s nearly all the rupiah flowing into the district came from civil service salaries. Almost no rupiah came in outside the government budget. Agriculture is just subsistence. There is practically no export - just a little copra and marine products. The big fishing trawlers that frequent Tual harbour are Taiwanese and pay their money to Jakarta. The whole of society depends on the state - even if only as a labourer at a school building site.


Even now it is not clear who started the conflict in the Kei Islands in 1999. There was a rumour that Islam had been insulted, and a fight broke out on the border between Tual town (Islamic) and neighbouring Ta'ar (Protestant). Every village is relatively homogeneous in religious terms. Even those few villages that are mixed have exclusively Protestant, Catholic and Islamic neighbourhoods. There is thus very little social interaction between people of different religions - just a memory that they were once one.

This kind of social segregation dates back to the introduction of the world religions in Southeast Maluku at the end of the nineteenth century. This was also the time when the highly extractive and bureaucratic colonial state of the Netherlands Indies was first established here. Religion is a state concept. Its introduction and maintenance has always been a policy of the state. Throughout the New Order, anyone who was not religious was an enemy of the state - a communist.

Religion invokes political issues. For Kei Islanders it is not just an inspiration for peace but also a political inspiration. The political institutionalisation of religion takes on fearful forms - it is the institutionalisation of fear. The communist issue is taken very seriously.

They do believe in religion, but in practice it becomes too serious and heavy. Religion is an initial barrier that must be overcome before Kei Islanders can interact more deeply. Religion is competitive. In colonial times power was distributed according to religion. Under the New Order the rhetoric was secular, but in reality religion remained important in determing who became district head or chairperson of the local assembly.

The moment that central power experienced melt-down was therefore also the moment when competition spun totally out of control. Everyone knows everyone else in a small community. But rumours immediately began to circulate of impending attacks from another community in a neighbouring village or island. As long as the Big Brother state was in charge, such outside attacks were impossible to imagine, although they did happen. There are always long-standing problems between neighbouring villages - whether it is over land or an unpaid bride price. Indonesia provided a kind of imperial peace that dampened inter-village warfare.

Ambon, the provincial capital 600 kilometres to the west, had always been the model of statecraft. No village head could be appointed without the approval of the governor in Ambon. The social segregation in Tual was very like that in Ambon too. So when Ambon descended into chaos, so did Tual. Suddenly people lost confidence in the 'guarantees of security' provided by the village head to protect those belonging to a minority faith. If someone heard a rumour that the village would be attacked, they just fled.

Everyone was suddenly on the stage, acting out a script of Christian-Muslim warfare that had been written in Ambon. Of course they all knew what inter-religious tension was, but they never imagined it could come to war. There was a kind of stage fever driven by extreme fear, as well as by a sense of exhiliration, that turned into real violence.


However, the conflict did not sever all social relationships. It did not make a complete break in history. There were still some relationships across the religious divide, and especially within local communities. In that sense the conflict was a superficial one, although it had a big local impact.

It really wasn't 'themselves' up there on the stage. After a time they came to their senses, and got down to become spectators again. It became a kind of game once more - even if things were not the same because of the refugees and the dead. I don't believe there were hundreds of dead. In 'my' village of Ohoitel there were just eight dead. Talking numbers was part of the escalation of war. Even one is too many. There were also many stories of people helping one another across religious barriers. They said 'we are all one' - 'Ain Ni Ain'.

When Kei Islanders remember their golden age of enlightenment they do not mean the coming of religion, but the creation of their customary law, the larvul ngabal. The historical watershed for them was not the coming of the Dutch, or of the Republic of Indonesia, or of religion, but much longer ago than that.

They have long regarded Tanimbar Kei, a small island in the south, as the last stronghold of Kei custom and beliefs. During the conflict, this island became a sanctuary for refugees of all religions.

The resurgent belief in the efficacy of custom led to a revived interest in the remaining customary leaders who had not been coopted by the New Order. The key role in turning back to a history of customary kinship was played by Bapak Raja J P Rahail, the customary king of Watlar. Raja Rahail began by preventing any rioting in his own kampung. In the hierarchy of local raja he was the most junior of the twelve in the Kei Islands, but he was able to approach the others and start a movement of customary reconciliation.

Throughout the New Order, Raja Rahail had always been outside the system. He was something of a symbol of opposition to it. He revived the customary community known as the ratskap (from the Dutch 'raadschap'). Raja Rahail was close to the NGO community - being one of the chairpersons of the archipelago-wide customary association Aman (Asosiasi Masyarakat Adat Nusantara), as well as of an Asia-wide association since the early 1990s.

The 1979 law on village government (no 5/1979) had totally destroyed village autonomy. But Raja Rahail had succeeded in retaining custom in his ratskap of Maur Ohoiwut, and this was an inspiration for the community that lived there. The ratskap consisted of several villages, with different religions.

So there were two models of community in Southeast Maluku. One shaped by Indonesia, which bound together religions through the distribution of patronage in the form of official appointments. This experienced melt-down and violence in 1999. As a consequence, people once more began to look to another model, one based on custom and local autonomy.

Even though Raja Rahail was only relatively junior - not in age, he was about seventy years old and in fact died in November 2001 - but his statecraft became a model for the others when they saw how he was able to manage conflict.

Raja Rahail had only his authority and his prestige to offer. He was an expert in creating consultative mechanisms. Every year he held a great debate, a musyawarah, in his ratskap. This had been running since the early 1990s assisted by various non-government organisations (NGOs). He inspired Kei Islanders with the idea that they belonged to one community, and that peace depended on the people's initiative. This played a significant role in ending the conflict in Southeast Maluku.

P M Laksono (laksono@ugm.ac.id) teaches anthropology at Gadjah Mada University. His book 'The common ground in the Kei Islands' (Yogyakarta: Galang Press) appeared in March 2002 (see Bookshop page).

Inside Indonesia 70: Apr - Jun 2002

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